Wednesday, June 12, 2013

In Character: Tom Wilkinson

The funny thing about Tom Wilkinson is that he’s been around a lot longer than I always remember. Although he became widely known in the early 2000s, I often forget that his career started much earlier. He popped up occasionally as crooked lawyers, thieving businessmen, noble royalty, bloodthirsty generals, and so on. But then he got that one role. That one role that put him over the edge, and made him a household name. Now he’s a go-to… for anything. Any character, any accent, any motivation – Tom Wilkinson is a go-to actor to make any character shine. That brilliant, haunting, perfect role that launched his career is listed below, along with five others that prove his continual worth.

Five Essential Roles
The Full Monty (1997)
After a failed steel mill puts most of a town out of work, a merry band of male misfits decide to earn money by stripping at Chippendale’s. But first, they need direction. They need a routine. After Gaz (Robert Carlyle) assembles his crew, they spot their old boss, Gerald, waltzing with his wife at a dance class. Man’s got moves, so they offer to bring him on. But Gerald’s not having it. He’s too proud. Too dignified. Too manly. There’s a great scene midway through the film that encapsulates Gerald’s emasculation. After Gerald physically battles some of the men, he admits through tears that he can’t tell his wife he’s out of work. He breaks down, and the others listen. Then they offer to help. And help do they ever.

Normal (2003)
Roy Applewood
On the surface, Roy Applewood is a happily married man living the All-American dream: steady job at the factory, proud wife, smart kids, and so on. But underneath, he’s a deeply troubled individual who believes he was born into the wrong body. Everything about Wilkinson’s work here bleeds struggle. Roy is a person constantly fighting an uphill battle, with no real support in sight. But he stays. He goes to work, he goes to church. He endures. He explains. He perseveres. He perseveres until he is no longer he, and it is simply beautiful to watch.

Separate Lies (2005)
James Manning
When I covered Emily Watson in this column, I made mention of how taken I was with the apathetic nature of Separate Lies. None of the characters involved harp on the circumstances plaguing them. Until they’re forced to.

In one scene, Wilkinson’s James Manning receives several verbal blows within seconds when he discovers that his wife is not only a killer, but an adulterer as well. And watching this sequence, I’m reminded of how perfect Wilkinson listens. Rarely is it so fascinating to watch an actor simply receive information. But it’s written all over Wilkinson’s face. Everything we need to know about him is displayed convincingly on his weathered, furrowed brow. A great example of not needing words to communicate your point.

Cassandra’s Dream (2007)
Uncle Howard
Wilkinson’s role Woody Allen’s criminal ignored thriller, Cassandra’s Dream is evidence of a great actor doing so much with so little. We hear about Uncle Howard plenty before we actually meet him. We hear that he’s a rich businessman who always puts family first. When he arranges to have lunch with his family, brothers Terry (Colin Farrell) and Ian (Ewan McGregor) see it as an opportune time to ask their uncle for separate loans. Howard hears them out says that yes, they can have the money. They just have to do him one small favor.

The favor, it turns out, is not so little. Terry and Ian are to murder a former business partner of Howard’s. Why? Doesn’t matter. How much money will they gain? Plenty. In one electrifying monologue of shame, power, greed and acceptance, Howard spells out the offer to his nephews with candid indifference. It’s as if he’s asking them to watch his dog for a week, not murder a man who could put him in prison. Wilkinson pops up a few more times throughout the film, but his monologue detailing the offer is the highlight of a rather great film.

Michael Clayton (2007)
Arthur Edens
I swear, if the only thing Wilkinson did in this movie was deliver the extended, off screen rant that opens the film, he still would’ve been nominated for an Oscar. But he does more. So much more. Through episodes of his untreated manic-depressive disorder, Wilkinson enrages his character with vehement opposition. He fights his own team and speaks his mind. It’s maddening, often nonsensical, and consistently gripping.

In fact, Arthur may be the most incensed character Wilkinson has ever played. During the scene between he and George Clooney in an interrogation room, the power of Wilkinson’s craft is evident in Clooney’s reaction. Sure, Michael Clayton, the character, is supposed to look confused and furious, but I like to think there’s some of Clooney poking through there. There’s a part of George Clooney, the actor, being completely enchanted by the performer in front of him. Or maybe I’m assuming too much. Either way, there’s no denying the command that Wilkinson has of Arthur Edens. It’s nearly the best thing he’s ever done.

The Best of the Best
In the Bedroom (2001)
Matt Fowler
The power of Todd Fields’ In The Bedroom is in its silence. Fields knows when to let his characters be still and when to think; he knows how to make room for time. For example, few things resonate more than watching Matt Fowler standing stoically in a high school hallway, bracing himself to speak words he never thought he’d have to speak. Or the way in which Matt slowly disassembles a small swing set with such precise devastation. Or the way he lays in bed, starring at the ceiling, thinking.

But that’s just one side to Wilkinson’s magnificent work here. The other, of course, is when his confidence fails, and he’s forced to confront his problems head on. While I remain wholly taken with the stillness of Wilkinson’s work in this film, the best thing he’s ever done as an actor is dive into an extended argument with Sissy Spacek. They move through the house, breaking dishes, slamming doors, screaming. They talk of fault, of guilt, of remorse. They insult, they berate, they accept. It’s as honest and gut wrenching a domestic argument as I’ve ever seen on film. Wilkinson goes through a character arc in that scene that changes the entire course of the movie. And, as usual, it’s written all over Wilkinson’s face. He doesn’t have to say a word.

Other Notable Roles
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Prime Suspect (1991)
In the Name of the Father (1993)
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Rush Hour (1998)
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Ride with the Devil (1999)
The Patriot (2000)
The Gathering Storm (2002)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Ripley Under Ground (2005)
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
Batman Begins (2005)
The Last Kiss (2006)
Dedication (2007)
Recount (2008)
RocknRolla (2008)
John Adams (2008)
Duplicity (2009)
The Ghost Writer (2010)
The Conspirator (2011)
The Kennedys (2011)
The Debt (2011)
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012)


  1. Man, that dude is totally awesome. He's one of those guys right now where if he's in a bad movie. You know that his performance will be one of the few things in that film that won't suck. There's a couple of small roles for the films he did for Ang Lee that really shows that no matter how small the part is. He can make it standout.

    My favorite performance from his is in The Patriot as General Cornwallis. The man could've been a typical antagonist but he exudes so much more as there is an air of respectability and charm to his role. Yet, he is also flustered when he's humiliated by Mel Gibson while endures humility when he realizes that things will change.

    1. You're so right, even if he's in a bad movie, he always manages to stand out. His brief roles in Lee's films really are exceptional.

      I was very close to including his role in The Patriot. He's simply excellent there.

  2. I knew what was going to be number 1 even though I haven't watched the movie. Still, he's a pretty amazing actor. Love him in Michael Clayton and Full Monty.

    1. Ohhh you have to watch In the Bedroom. It's a slow stunner of a film. Beautiful and debestating. Glad you're a fan of his work!

  3. Damn, I feel like I'm really missing out here. The only one of these that I've seen is Michael Clayton, and agree he is amazing in it. Need to get on In The Bedroom! He's great The Ghost Writer as well (though I'm sure you already know that)!

    1. He's great in The Ghost Writer, for sure. I need to watch that one again actually.

      Definitely check out In the Bedroom when you can!

  4. I haven't seen at least half pf the films you mentioned here but even then there are so many great roles that ran through my mind when I saw his name. Not a big fan of In the Bedroom but he's great in it, especially in that last scene.

    1. I like hearing that although you aren't a fan of that film, you can still appreciate his performance. I feel like his work in that movie is inarguable. He's just perfect.

  5. Alex, I love the weight that Wilkinson brings to even characters that we meet for just a few minutes. The Ghost Writer is a great example; we get so much from him within a really short time frame. His work in Eternal Sunshine is also subtle and makes us feel for the guy despite his past transgressions. I can't think of a bad performance from him. I'm not a fan of Cassandra's Dream, but he's definitely not the problem.

    1. Dan, that's just the perfect way to put it... "weight." The dude simply has weight. I really wanted to include The Ghost Writer here, but it just barely didn't make the cut. I can't think of a bad performance either. Always on point.

  6. Great choice for an IC column! He is one of my favorite actors. I concur with your choice of In the Bedroom as his top performance. I'm glad you also highlighted Normal, a worthwhile movie which hasn't gotten much attention.

    1. Thanks! I honestly had trouble rewatching In the Bedroom for this post because that movie fuckin kills me. Like wow.

      I hadn't seen Normal until a few weeks ago. A great little film, and he's great in it.

  7. Great choice for a spotlight. So versatile and such a team player. He just seems to fit in whatever is necessary for the film to work.

    I confess my favorite Wilkinson performance has always been in Shakespeare In Love. I love the arc of the character, the way he transitions from a penny pinching philistine to a devout patron of the arts, and Wilkinson makes it SO true and SO funny in such limited screen time. The way he reacts when Fiennes says he's written him a gets me every time.

    1. Thanks man, glad you dig Wilkinson.

      So now I'm faced with a conundrum. I've seen Shakespeare In Love twice, and didn't enjoy it at all. But that was 10 years ago. And your praise for it makes me curious to watch it again. That's the effect you have on me. Sonofabitch.

    2. Yeah, I know Shakespeare In Love isn't loved by all. I can understand it. It's very much a rom com at its core and it is kind of simplistic in how it reduces Shakespeare to writing what he "knows". But.....I am a full-fledged romantic, after all, and I do think it does a spectacular job of showing the importance of both the written and the arts.

  8. I love this guy! I agree In the Bedroom is his finest work, but Michael Clayton is close. It's great to see his performances from Cassandra's Dream and The Full Monty on here as well. Love him in those.

    1. A Cassandra's Dream fan?! Nice! I really do like that movie and him in it. I hadn't seen The Full Monty in years before this post. Whatta great little film.

  9. I know it's banal but his perfomance in Batman Begins was by far the best in the movie. I really like this guy, he's always astonishing

    1. Everything about his performance works great. The accent is perfect, the attitude is on point - I love his brief work in that movie.

    2. What about an In Character focused on Ed Harris or Harvey Keitel? Anyway your blog is simply awesome, what an amazing job!

    3. I sort of did an Ed Harris one already. Kind of an unofficial entry:

      Keitel is a great pick! Thanks so much for reading!

  10. Awesome choice! I love his work in Clayton and that scene with Clooney you mentioned was terrific. I'm not a big fan of "In the Bedroom", but his performance there was incredible. I'm glad to read so many good things about "Cassandra's Dream" - such a great and hugely underrated movie.

    1. I LOVE that you're a Cassandra's Dream fan. I really dig that flick. Wilkinson is such a beast in Michael Clayton. He went all in there.

  11. I haven't seen Cassandra's Dream - I shall have to remedy that after reading this post. I love how he has the ability to be menacing and almost scary, as well as being warm-hearted and enduring.

    He's been cast in Wes Anderson's new film. I can't wait to see what kind of role he going to play in that.

    1. Ohh I didn't know he was going to be in Anderson's new flick. That's great!

      Hope you enjoy Cassandra's Dream, one of my favorite Allen dramas.